When I first began working with teachers who represented different disciplines, I learned that a lot of college professors are very stuck on their own content. And they believe that it, along with the pedagogy that they use for presenting it to students, is what causes learning to occur. It is absolutely true that credible, effective teachers are—first and foremost—subject-matter experts. Years of education and experience have helped us build this knowledge base that we use as the foundation for our teaching. Then we work hard at developing unique, innovative, in-class pedagogy and assignments for our students.
But why is it that, despite our expertise and all this effort, we still struggle to get our students engaged, motivated, performing well, and understanding what it is we want for them as students? Years of research suggests that the secret sauce, so to speak, is communication. More specifically, the teacher’s communication plays a powerful role as the source of all kinds of messages in and around the college classroom.
In fact, research reveals that no source is as powerful as the teacher on student outcomes like motivation, compliance, enjoyment of the class, student intentions of what they plan to do with what they learn, and their learning outcomes—things like recall, understanding, analysis, synthesis, and so on. It’s not your content, it’s not your textbook, it’s not what fancy technologies you select, and it’s not even primarily the characteristics of your students, even though all of these things matter to an extent.
So, scientifically speaking, nothing causes
learning, obviously. It’s a complex interaction of factors, the most important of which are the instructor’s communication skills and choices. These operate to get students in a state of what I call “readiness to learn” and, eventually, to learn.
Now that same research reveals that, in order to accomplish these really positive things we want to do, we need to be very careful in our interactions with students. Their perceptions of us matter greatly. They notice our missteps that sometimes we aren’t even aware of. They and their learning are very sensitive to anything we say or do that they might experience as negative or antisocial.
But sometimes we have to deliver negative feedback or talk about topics that our students think of as unpopular or unpleasant. So the question then becomes, how do we do all of that without coming across as this negative, overbearing, domineering, controlling teacher? And the answers are critical to our success, because when students perceive us in these negative ways, their achievement, along with our teacher ratings, almost always suffer.
The answer to the question lies in a concept that was first studied by the respected UCLA psychologist Albert Mehrabian in the 1960s and ‘70s. It was first applied to the study of education by communication researchers in the late ‘70s. And it’s known as “immediacy.” “Immediacy” refers to communicators’ perceptions of physical and psychological closeness with one another.
The Power of Immediacy
Immediacy is connected to all kinds of desirable things, in all different types of communication settings, not just teaching. Work, families, dating relationships, marriages, health-care situations, and so on. Since the early 1980s, research on teachers’ habits, though, that result in students’ perceptions of immediacy has been very, very clear. We know that when students perceive teachers to be consistently and authentically immediate, the list of great things that happen is very long.
First, they tend to view us as more likable than their less-immediate teachers. And, by extension, they’re led to like the content of our courses. When a teacher is liked, respected, and admired by students, research is very clear—those students learn more than they would enrolled in a class with a teacher they don’t like, don’t respect, or don’t admire. This is very important information for any of you who might be thinking, "Hey, I’m being paid to teach, not make students like me or the content."
Overall, they’re more motivated and engaged than students with less-immediate teachers. When we’re immediate, teachers are more forgiving of our mistakes, our bad days, the things that we occasionally do that they don’t like or that discourage them, relative to our courses. Students enrolled in classes with highly immediate teachers are more cooperative and willing to do the things we ask them to do. They view immediate teachers as credible, competent, trustworthy, caring, and responsive experts.
When we’re immediate, our students are less anxious and stressed about their performance, even in courses that are famous for creating a lot of anxiety, like Statistics, Public Speaking, or Math. When we’re immediate, our students experience greater motivation. And you might like this one. They use their communication devices, like phones and laptops, for social reasons during class a lot less often.
When students experience us as immediate and approachable, they often experience feelings of being mentored, rather than just taught. They feel like they’re getting a personalized educational experience, and not like a number or just a body in a seat. Immediate teachers also are very successful at empowering students in the learning experience to take a greater role, rather than a passive one, in their learning. They perceive greater understanding of material on any given day, regardless of other factors, when we’re immediate, such as whether they read the book or did the homework.
When teachers are immediate—and this is so important—students are more likely to persist in college rather than drop out. They interpret our feedback more constructively and objectively rather than personally and defensively. They’re less likely to be uncivilized, resistant, and disruptive in how they talk with us.
When we’re truly immediate, our students view us as assertive—but not aggressive, which is a more negative type of communication. And they then tend to respect our policies and our wishes—what we ask of them. Students enrolled in courses with immediate teachers learn more. They perform better on tests. They get better grades. And they even report feelings of more mastery and achievement.
When we’re immediate, we get higher teacher ratings, not only from our students but from our supervisors and peers who evaluate us. We have greater power to be persuasive and influential over our students and what we ask them to do and over what they learn when we’re immediate. So I warned you the list was long. But no other teacher-communication behavior is more important to student learning than immediacy.
Capable, Likable, and Approachable
Immediacy works based on a simple principle that Mehrabian studied—that people are drawn toward that which they like or prefer, and then they move away from, or avoid, the things that they don’t like or prefer. So, since research is very clear on just how much of a role we as teachers play in student learning, it stands to reason that we want our students to approach us and what we’re trying to do in and around our classes.
I use that phrase a lot—“in and around our classes”—because I don’t believe that the need for masterful communication is limited to our formal class time with students. If we want students to visit us in our offices—and the research tells us that that can be a very valuable experience—we have to be capable, likable, approachable communicators there, too. And in the campus coffee shop, before and after class, in the hallways—anywhere we run into students.
Now if you’re one of those teachers who thinks, “I’m busy—I’d rather students not approach me too much,” I really want to encourage you to rethink that philosophy. It’s only through interpersonal encounters that students reduce their misunderstanding, their anxiety about learning and performance, and develop positive attitudes about what we’re teaching. It’s through those relationships they form with us that they become motivated and that they get the information that’s necessary for their learning. The old spray-and-pray approach—you know, spray them with information in class and then just pray that they get it—is really a completely ineffective way to teach.
So just how do we become more immediate teachers? It starts with developing a repertoire of both verbal and nonverbal communication skills. First, what we say can cause our students to feel closer or more distant to them. We can increase immediacy and reduce distance from our students by developing habits that show our openness. And one of the most important things that you can do is say things to your students that encourage them to communicate with you.
Behave in ways and say things that suggest your warmth and that you care about your students. Say things that illustrate that you can see your student’s perspective, even if ultimately you do want to move them around and influence them to see your perspective. So here are some things to try, in order to be more verbally immediate.
First, use terms like “we” and “us” to refer to your class, instead of “you”—or “you people,” even worse. Allow for some small talk and out-of-class conversations with students. I like to come a few minutes early, whenever it’s possible. And I’m very open to students who want to talk. And I like to be the last one out of the classroom, in case somebody needs to speak to me then.
Try engaging in a little bit of self-disclosure. Of course, it has to be appropriate—not too much, and it shouldn’t go on too long. The topic shouldn’t be too personal. But it can’t hurt to talk about your summer vacation, what you did this weekend, about your family a little bit. And encourage students to do the same. Even simple questions like “How was your weekend?” or “Do you have any plans for break?” are going to get you some great return on a very small communication investment.
Another way verbally to be immediate is to give students feedback. Even respond to their comments and answers in class. Simple things like “Hey, that’s really interesting, thanks,” can be very effective.
Ask students how they feel about things going on in class. Know your students’ first names. Learn them very quickly in the semester and use them. When I train new teachers, I tell them that this is actually the most important thing that they need to do, the first week of class. Even in large classes, learn some of the names, and maybe try to come up with a system, like a seating chart, that’ll let you use names when you want to talk to students or call on those that raise their hand.
Allow students to call you by your first name. That’s something to consider. Now, at this point, you might be a little uncomfortable with some of my recommendations. I meet teachers sometimes who work in disciplines or departments where it would be highly unusual, for example, for students to refer to them by their first names.
These verbal-immediacy strategies are very important when we deal with students. But the research indicates that nonverbally immediate communication may have an even greater impact on students and their learning.
Nonverbal Immediacy Behaviors
Nonverbal immediacy behaviors are some of the most valuable things in your teaching tool kit. So what can you do to be a nonverbally immediate teacher?
Well, first, gesture when you’re talking to the class. Use your hands and your arms to emphasize important points. Use vocal variety when talking to your class. Some people don’t think of the use of the voice as nonverbal, but it actually is, technically speaking. Don’t be a monotone teacher.
Look at the class while talking to them. Make sure that you make eye contact and briefly sustain it with everyone in the room at some point during the class. In large lectures where it’s not possible to make eye contact with everyone, create zones in your mind, and make sure that you hit each zone, since every student isn’t possible.
Smile at the class. (I am not an obvious smiler. I have to remind myself to smile, when I talk to my class.) Be sure that you have a friendly facial expression, that you’re animated, and that you smile whenever you can.
Make sure your posture is relaxed. Don’t be too stiff and formal. When students approach you to talk, stand within what we call “personal distance,” which is about one to four feet. Be mindful, all the time, the worst thing you can do is back up. So just be careful that you don’t do that.
Move around the classroom when you teach. Make use of all your available space. And make sure you do it in large lectures, too. I even go and stand at the very back of the room, from time to time. This even gives me a chance to see what’s going on on students’ laptops, and so on.
Avoid being too dependent on your notes when you teach. That interrupts eye contact and this immediacy that we’re really aiming for. Never turn your back to students for more than a second or so. And avoid that habit of talking to the screen or the board. Talk to your students.
Remove barriers between yourself and your students. Never stand behind the podium for any length of time to teach. And when students come to your office, if you have the space, try to come out from behind your big desk to work with them.
The way you dress is a powerful nonverbal-immediacy behavior. Be professional but more casual. Research indicates that when teachers dress too formally, students do feel that they’re competent but maybe not very caring or receptive. And, as a result, students don’t see us as very approachable.
To get the ball rolling when it comes to credibility—and especially for new teachers—but at the same time develop this positive, open climate, start out by dressing more professionally for the first class meeting or two. And then ease up, getting more casual throughout the semester. There’s also some research that suggests your style matters. Students assign more credibility to teachers whose clothes are up to date. But you don’t need to be trendy. Just make sure you’re in this decade. Remember, your appearance is the first thing that students sense about you. And it’s just human nature that we draw all kinds of conclusions, both accurate ones and inaccurate ones, based on first impressions. So it matters.
I coach a lot of new instructors, and a lot of them are sometimes a little resistant to some of these things that I’m recommending. They express some concern that the things that I’m recommending will undermine their authority or that developing communicative relationships with students might be a risky thing to do. They believe that interacting beyond the simple purposes of transmitting information or answering content questions will lead to too much informality—a lack of discipline or rigor. They worry that they won’t be able to uphold the boundaries of their policies if they really start communicating with their students.
I’ve heard things like “Well, I teach in a law school. We aren’t really friendly with our students.” So, in response, I’ll say right away that you really need to look at immediacy as something critical, no matter what you teach. It’s a personality requirement for what we do. But, that said, when you think back on the things I’ve suggested, you are probably more comfortable with some than others. Some of them might be highly unusual for your field or not the norm in your department.
So, in terms of your own comfort zone, it’s important to practice those behaviors with your students you feel comfortable with. It has to be authentic for it to work.
Immediate teachers are also versatile communicators. They know when to be friendly, warm, and approachable, and they know when immediacy is not the message that they want to send. For immediate teachers, it’s also easy to make requests, disagree, express their own rights, rules, and policies, create boundaries, and so on. The reality of most teaching professors is that they are brilliant experts at what they teach but not necessarily experts on how to teach or how to communicate with students. Unfortunately, most teachers have little formal education in the field of communication, beyond maybe a public-speaking class. And speaking skills are very helpful, but they’re just a small portion of the communication skills that are important for teachers.
Adapted from the Magna 20-Minute Mentor presentation, “How Can I Communicate to Engage Students and Encourage Learning?” 2015.